NFL Week One is officially upon us, and football fans can feel the excitement and anticipation in the air. Last season, we got to witness many great moments, but none were more notable than Tom Brady winning his seventh Super Bowl in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a time when the game is getting younger, Brady reestablished the fact that he is the best quarterback to ever step on a football field.
With regard to surprises from last season, there were good ones and bad ones. The Cleveland Browns, a team that was a hot mess in 2019 and simply abysmal the seasons prior, put the league on notice last season and it seems that Baker Mayfield and company have finally put it all together. On a less positive note, the Dallas Cowboys, despite drafting arguably the best wide receiver in last year’s draft and having a superstar quarterback-running back duo, underachieved immensely as they battled injuries and poor performance from their highest paid players.
As evident in the examples from last season, you may think you know which teams and players will succeed and which will struggle this season, but the reality is that football is an unpredictable sport and you just never know which team will burst onto the scene and become a contender, or which player will shock the world and have a breakout campaign. While I can write about which teams will struggle and take a step back next season, in light of the beginning of the NFL season finally being upon us, I will instead focus on the positives and give you my bold predictions regarding teams and players that I think will overachieve in the 2021-22 NFL season.
Look out for the Saints
Is Drew Brees a Hall of Fame quarterback? Yes. Was he arguably the most accurate and efficient passer of all time? Also yes. I am not denying the fact that with Brees retiring, the New Orleans Saints are losing a legend and one of the most knowledgeable football minds the sport has seen. With that being said, it would be foolish to ignore that he did not perform anywhere near Hall of Fame level last season. Brees simply did not have the arm strength to throw the ball downfield and it made the Saints offense extremely one dimensional. Defenses were able to shrink the field, making it very difficult for receivers to create space, and teams were also able to key on star running back Alvin Kamara. Considering all this, it is incredibly impressive that the Saints still managed to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South. However, the flaws to their offensive scheme was exposed in a big way against the Buccaneers in the playoffs.
Looking ahead to this season, this is still one of the more talented rosters in the NFC and they now have a quarterback in Jameis Winston, who is capable of making the big play. While everyone knows Winston as the quarterback who threw 30 interceptions and 30 touchdowns in the same season, people never seem to realize what this tells us about his potential: it is through the roof. From a mental standpoint, there are not many quarterbacks who could make that many mistakes and still hold their head up and make great plays in the same game. In Tampa Bay, Jameis Winston was the victim of a system that encouraged throwing deep balls the majority of the time. Mike Evans was his top target, and it is very possible that Winston was forcing it to Evans down the field because he was the star wide receiver.
The situation in New Orleans is very different. Although he is injured right now, Winston’s eventual top target, Michael Thomas, is not a guy who only goes deep. In fact, he does most of his damage through slant and crossing routes. This will prevent Winston’s temptation to throw risky deep balls and will instead promote long, steady drives: a great formula for winning football. Not to mention Winston has probably the most elite checkdown option in the NFL in Kamara. Winston has also already formed a great connection with second-year receiver Marquez Callaway, who figures to be the top target until Thomas returns. And, just for a final little detail, Jameis Winston got to watch and learn from the great Drew Brees last season. Expect him to look like a different quarterback than he did in Tampa Bay.
Defensively, the Saints should essentially pick up right where they left off. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has always had Mike Evans’ number and he consistently takes the opposing team’s best receiver out of the game. It is extremely difficult to function without one of your star players, and this is what Lattimore forces teams to do. Linebacker Demario Davis and defensive end Cameron Jordan, the Saints’ other star defenders, will lead a young, talented defense to another successful season.
There is no reason why the Saints shouldn’t be one of the more complete teams in the NFC just as they were last season, and now they have a quarterback who can expand the field and keep the defense on their toes.
Andy Dalton Will Remain The Bears’ Starting Quarterback
I’m sure I will get a lot of hate and disgust for this prediction, but when I look at the Chicago Bears, I see a team that can win games with an average quarterback. Running back David Montgomery blossomed in the latter half of last season, putting up superstar numbers. From a receiving standpoint, Allen Robinson is a true No. 1 wide receiver while Darnell Mooney and Marquise Goodwin fill out the remaining two starting spots. All three of these receivers are above average playmakers, and at least one of them should go into every game with a mismatch. All Andy Dalton has to do is identify the mismatch and execute.
People gave Dalton a hard time about his performance with the Dallas Cowboys last season, but the reality is that the Cowboys were an utter dumpster fire last season and he was just a product of a team that had no identity or will to win. Based on Ezekiel Elliott’s performance last season, Dalton will be getting an upgrade at running back in David Montgomery, and although he had good receivers in Dallas, none of them possessed the physical gifts of Allen Robinson. The Bears offense has a lot of pieces that should make Dalton’s job relatively easy, and to be honest, it wouldn’t kill rookie Justin Fields to watch and learn from the sideline for a year as long as Dalton is winning games.
Tua Tagovailoa Will Have A Breakout Season
Living in New England, I may also receive some backlash with this take. However, the facts are the facts, and the Miami Dolphins provided Tagovailoa with a plethora of weapons going into this season. First off, Miami drafted star Alabama wide receiver and former teammate of Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle. I think one of the downfalls of the sophomore’s previous season was that he lacked a versatile, speedy receiver that is capable of changing speed and direction quickly like he had at Alabama with both Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs of the Oakland Raiders. It is not that Tagovailoa is dependent on having these types of players, but one of his biggest strengths is buying time in the pocket and using his mobility behind the line of scrimmage to extend plays. Last year, the Dolphins did not have a receiver who took advantage of this attribute of Tagovailoa. No cornerback will be able to contain Jaylen Waddle if the young quarterback extends plays and stays patient in the pocket, which is why I think the two of them will be an elite quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL.
I should also add that the Dolphins signed Will Fuller, who is a high level talent and was Deshaun Watson’s go to guy in Houston after DeAndre Hopkins was traded. Fuller is a very skilled route runner who will be open downfield and will create big play opportunities for Tagovailoa. Likewise, Devante Parker will be on the other side doing the same thing. Defensive coordinators are going to have to choose who they assign their top cornerbacks to, and it should give Tagovailoa the comfortable and familiar role of looking at the most exploitable matchup and trusting himself to make plays.
The running game, led by Myles Gaskin, should be effective once again and give their offense multiple dimensions, but it is no secret that Dolphins will go as far as Tagovailoa takes them. I truly believe that weapons were the primary issue last year and with the additions of Waddle and Fuller, Tagovailoa should be able to play a style that allows him to be himself and take calculated risks that will, most of the time, result in success.
Najee Harris will make the Steelers contenders
Everyone remembers the Steelers’ embarrassing loss in last year’s playoffs at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, a division rival. As the Browns and Ravens continue improving and maturing, people seem to already be writing off the Steelers as AFC North contenders, and there is certainly no talk of them getting to the Super Bowl.
With that said, the Steelers are a new team this year, due in large part to one player. Last season, Pittsburgh was dead last in rushing yards. They were the most one dimensional team in the league, which did not bode well for a team with an aging quarterback. However, in the NFL Draft, they wasted no time in solving this problem as they drafted highly touted Alabama running back Najee Harris with their first round pick. If you’ve ever watched Harris play, you know how gifted of an athlete and player he is. This is a guy who can juke a linebacker, hurdle a cornerback, and truck a safety all in the same play. His speed, strength, and agility are all top notch. There are no flaws in his game. Pittsburgh is essentially going from having no running back (sorry James Conner) to having a potential top five running back in the league. This will take an enormous amount of pressure off Ben Roethisberger and will force defenses to pay attention to the backfield rather than only worrying about receivers Diontae Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool.
With the injury to JK Dobbins of the Ravens, Pittsburgh instantly has something that Baltimore doesn’t: a workhorse running back. The ground game is one of the most underrated parts of football and it will allow the Steelers to control the pace of the game and give their defense the opportunity to rest for extended periods of time. Assuming they don’t suffer any significant injuries, I have no doubt that the Steelers will be one of the top teams in the AFC this season thanks to having an elite running back.